The story: a rebel wanted by the "all-seeing" Order for dissension.
The setting: a bustling metropolis rebuilt on its rapidly corroding ruins.
The character: a crass young man with fire coursing through his veins.
Word count: 3,020
A short story originally written in response to people pestering Joseph about a character that randomly disappeared in the middle of another story he wrote in a Creative Writing class.
The best part of this story is the fact that Joseph kept telling everyone the "missing" character was in this one and then he made sure his name isn't ever mentioned until the very last paragraph.
One guy actually came up to him and asked if he missed the character since he was down to the last page of the story. Five minutes later, he just gave Joseph a dirty look.
Footsteps. Three sets. A fourth. My own.
I opened my eyes, but the oily water burned like fire. I might as well have been blind, though; the water was more like mucus. Thick, brown, oily mucus.
I closed my eyes to ease the pain, but the damage was done. My eyes were infected, their integrity compromised. I flailed in the water, desperately trying to get away. But, of course, I felt like I wasn’t moving. I had always wondered what a pool full of Jell-O would be like, and now I knew. It sucked.
I surfaced for air, barely breathing. I must have ingested some of the water.
“There he is!”
I spun to the sound of the voice and saw three bright lights. Flashlights all pointing at me. Flashlights all pointing at a sitting duck.
“Well...Go get ‘em.” One of the lights motioned toward the water.
“What? Are you crazy?! I ain’t gettin’ in that sludge!”
There was a sigh, and, for the moment, I was safe. Until the sizzling started.
They heard it, and their voices grew urgent. “Quick! Get ‘em outta there!”
“You heard him, Horace! Get yer butt in there!”
“Kline was clearly referring to you, Dorcas.”
The water was bubbling. Strange. Oh, crap, the sizzling! I pulled my arm out of the water, and, by the light of the flashlights, I could see melting, boiling flesh. I lifted it up to get a look at the underside, only to find runny jelly dripping off my arm. Skin. Steam rose from the surface of the water as the jelly disintegrated upon contact with the face of the deep.
I looked back behind me again, only to see a beam of light much closer to the water than the others. They were coming. I had to move. I kicked my legs up and stretched my arm to start swimming, but there was a distinct pain in my gut when I moved from a vertical position to a horizontal one. I grunted, and I heard cries for Dorcas’s well-being. Water was sloshing behind me. He was gaining on me.
Move, body! Move!
My legs locked up and refused to budge, burning denim searing my calves. My arm looked like liquid chocolate splattered along a wall in front of me, but by some act of Providence, it actually moved. I couldn’t even feel my other arm.
“Gotcha!” I felt something wrap around my ankle. “Hey guys, I got him!”
I propelled myself forward as fast as I could, inadvertently splashing the oily sludge right into my mouth. It was already hard enough to breathe because of the putrid odor that had festered down here for twenty years, let alone the water in my lungs. I was drinking straight-up poison, if that’s even an apt description for the slime.
“Dorcas!” The voice I assumed was Kline’s shouted. “Hurry! Get out of that sewage!”
Kline’s flashlight shined about three feet in front of me, where there was a walkway elevated about a foot above the waterline. My arm was still flailing back and forth like a fish out of water– ironic, I know. The light stayed on the platform, guiding Dorcas to safety. It was so close… yet so far away. I wasn’t going to make it. I had been exposed to the water for far too long, even going so far as to ingest it. The small beam of light before me swirled and changed all sorts of colors before disappearing entirely.
It was dark. My body was numb, but I could hear sounds. Slishing and sloshing, clicking and clacking. A shrill screech.
I must’ve been dead; I had to be. The slishing and sloshing were bodies writhing in a boiling lake of the hottest magma. The clicking and clacking were the gnashing of teeth. The screech was the sliding of the rustic gates of Hell opening to usher me in.
I deserved this. I was a rebel, a revolutionary. An outlaw. I had defied the Order; I fought against every construct of society. And now, as I made my suicidal escape, I had died a death they would have deemed far too merciful for one such as myself. Sweet, sweet mercy.
Only it wasn’t mercy. They didn’t think this place was real. Hell. They said everyone was good at heart and nobody would ever suffer after death. Nothing but bliss awaited. Well, at least for those who obeyed the Order. I didn’t.
Hell. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Drip. Drip. Drip.
My eyes snapped open to a fuzzy yellow light. There was a horrible odor in the air, almost strong enough to knock me back out. Wait a second. I was…alive?
Feeling surged into my body, as if every bit of force from a meteor was compacted into a single cell, in every cell. My body lurched forward, electricity coursing through my veins. I was flipping through the air, not an ounce of pain in any part of my body. I landed on my feet, poised to strike. What was this? How was there not any pain whatsoever? How did I have full control over my body after melting in that sludge?
How was I even alive?
“Well, well, well, looks like somebody’s awake.”
I spun around to the voice, back to the yellow light, everything still fuzzy. I saw three silhouettes: one leaning back in a chair, one sitting on the corner of a table, and the other leaning against the wall. They looked like someone used a crappy Gaussian blur filter on a photo, but, for some unknown reason, I could see their eyes clear as day. The whites, pupils, irises, even the fibers in the irises. The one in the chair had orange eyes; the one on the table blue; the one against the wall hazel.
“He’s the One, isn’t he?” Blue eyes asks.
Orange stands up. “Yep, he certainly is, Kline. He certainly is.”
They all took a step toward me, each pulling out a pistol.
“Now, are ya gonna come with us the easy way or the hard way?” Hazel said.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. I looked down at my hands, the veins in my arms as clear as the silhouettes’ eyes. My arms were covered with a glowing, orange lattice, but if that wasn’t enough, the color kept swirling and ebbing back and forth. It almost looked like fire.
“Well? What’s it gonna be?”
I slowly lifted my head, and they were all within arm’s reach. They were all pitch black, the light behind them, but I could still see every detail of their eyes like it was daylight.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Put my hands behind my back. Lowered my head.
“Good, good. I guess that sewage made ‘em realize he couldn’t escape,” Hazel said.
I felt a hand on my shoulder as they moved to handcuff me, but before they could blink, I ducked low and jammed my head into Kline’s gut. He grunted and crumpled to the ground, and Hazel screamed as he pulled his gun up to fire. It gleamed in the lamplight. I jumped into a backflip, kicking his gun high, knocking him off guard. He stumbled back with wide eyes but quickly readjusted and dove for me while I was still standing on my hands.
I flipped backward two more times, hitting the wall with my feet. Using it as a springboard, I launched myself at Hazel, who stopped dead in his tracks and scrambled to get out of the way. Too slow.
My hands latched onto his shoulders and I flipped over his head, bouncing against the ground behind him, my hands still on his shoulders. Using my momentum, I flung him up and back over my head, flinging him into the wall, feet up. I heard a snap when he hit the ground. His neck.
“Dorcas!” Orange shrieked as the butt of his pistol smacked my jaw. His eyes were wild with fury.
I stumbled back a step, but only a step. I simply stood there for a second, letting the futility of Orange’s blow set in. His eyes quickly drooped as he stepped back. He was trembling.
Suddenly, something jabbed me in the side. Metal. Then it zapped me, pain ripping up my spine. I wasn’t expecting that. I fell to my knees, legs numb. I kept my head down, ashamed of myself. I had always watched my back. Always. How could I have let this happen?
A hand lifted my chin up to see Orange’s condescending eyes. “I guess the legends are only legends. Even you can’t defy the Order and get out alive.” His eyes shifted to the side. “Good work, Kline.”
Orange eyes threw me into a small, dark room, and I heard moaning and the pattering of rats along stone. The dripping of water. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Well, well, well,” he mocked. “Not so strong now are you?”
I offered no response; I still had no control over my body after being zapped an hour earlier. I really wished he would get that stupid flashlight out of my eyes, though. It was really bright.
“Don’t get comfortable. You won’t be here long.”
I lifted my eyes to his. “You must a psychic or something.”
He glared at me and quickly spun around and slammed a steel door shut, locks tumbling into place. The Catacombs. Everyone thought they were just a rumor, a way to make kids eat their vegetables. After all, no one had ever seen them and lived to tell about it. The place where the bad people go; the place where traitors ended up when they were thrown into a pit. Hell.
No, no, no. This wasn’t Hell. There was a hint of moonlight drifting in from the ribbed ceiling. I had two theories as to the openings above me: air circulation, or an opening for rain to fall in. It would be the only way any sustenance would reach anyone down here. It wasn’t raining, so I guess I wouldn’t be getting a drink of water anytime soon.
This was quite a pickle, wasn’t it? Here I was, a rebel, trapped in the Catacombs, the inescapable prison. According to the Order, it was fitting. According to me, it wasn’t. Odd. The Order prided itself on being tolerant and accepting of all races, creeds, orientations, and opinions. Except for mine. This ancient opinion that survived by hiding in catacombs just like this thousands of years ago. Just one more opinion in an endless sea of voices, yet, for some reason, I wasn’t welcome.
A screech brought me back to the situation at hand. I was trapped, hands bound by chains. And, despite my best efforts, all they did was jingle and jangle when I tried to break free. After a while, I sighed and looked down at my hands.
My hands carried a faint, orange glow. It swirled about, as if confined within my flesh with nowhere to go. I saw the light snake its way halfway up my forearms in what appeared to be a lattice, much like earlier when I had first awoken. The only difference was that it was far fainter. I looked a little closer, straining my eyes to focus, but everything still remained blurry. The lattice was still sharp, though.
There was nothing else I could do, so I just sat there and stared at the swirling vortex under my skin, mesmerized. Sometimes it looked like the inside of a washing machine. At others like the tide. Push and pull. Here and there. To and fro. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
I jumped when I heard another loud screech, ripping me out of my trance. I looked up and saw a pair of orange eyes and the beam of a flashlight. He looked perplexed.
“W-what is this?!” Orange eyes shrieked, terrified.
I looked back down at my hands, trying to come up with a snarky reply. But I noticed something I had somehow missed when I was locked in the hypnotic dance of the light: the chains were smoldering at my feet. I was free.
I jumped to my feet, taking no time to question it. I had to move, and I had to move quickly.
“Well, well, well,” I said, walking toward Orange. “Not so strong now, are you?”
Orange took a step back, and I walked a little faster.
“Don’t get comfortable. You won’t be here long.”
At that, Orange took off in a sprint, taking his flashlight with him.
My hands offered me enough light to see, so I didn’t let Orange’s lack of hospitality bother me as I ran after him. He would no doubt sound the alarm. Others would be coming.
I ran as fast as I could, but I quickly found myself in an open room with seven different paths to take, not including the one I had come from. Which one was the right one? If I was wrong, I would get lost and die before anyone ever found me.
I felt a chill run down my spine, and I turned around. Nothing. I mean, literally. Nothing. It was pitch black. The light in my hands had gone out.
I shuddered. Time was running out; they were coming. I remembered that we had only taken two turns to reach my holding cell after entering this dungeon, so I wasn’t that far down. Maybe only two stories beneath the city. All those people hustling and bustling right above me with no idea what was just beneath them.
“There he is!” A voice echoed. Bouncing lights were coming through one of the paths, closing in on me. “Grab him! Don’t let him escape!”
I looked back down at my hands. Still pitch black. What was this? Did that sewage have some kind of radioactive waste in it that turned me into a fire monster or something? Was it wearing off? Could DNA mutations even wear off? My guess was no.
They were upon me; the blinding light of flashlights assaulted me. I couldn’t see anything past the lights, not even the soldiers’ eyes. Maybe it had only been temporary. But why? And more importantly, how?
A hand grabbed my shoulder and I heard a familiar voice. Orange eyes. “Just give it up, already! You can’t escape!”
“Who said I was trying to escape?”
“Booker! Get over here and tie him up!”
Moments later, I felt more chains being wrapped around my wrists.
“You really think that’s gonna work, Orange eyes?”
“No, but this will,” he said as he pulled out a metal rod and jabbed me in the stomach. I felt the electricity blast its way up my throat and into my brain, and my body jerked and spasmed about. Orange laughed at my pain. He was enjoying this.
My legs gave out and I started to fall to my knees, but the other soldiers grabbed me and held me up. Orange wagged his finger back and forth under the light. “No, no, no. You’re not getting off that easy.”
He swung the rod into my chest and zapped me again, my body flailing violently. This time he didn’t hold the rod into me and let the electricity flow through me, though. He treated it like a sword, slashing, slicing and dicing, letting the full brunt of the pain hit me each time before my body could even attempt to adjust to the pain. Each time he made contact, sparks flew through the air, like the connecting of blades in an intense battle. He seemed to get angrier and angrier with each blow, and if this release of emotion had been a long time coming.
I couldn’t breathe. I think he might’ve punctured a lung. I wheezed and gasped for air, all the while Orange still slamming the stick all over my body.
One of the other soldiers said, “Hey, Horace, I think that’s enough.”
“Shut up!” He snapped back.
A pair of hands let me go and I heard scrambling as Horace screamed bloody murder.
“Get off me!”
“We were ordered to bring him back alive!”
I heard a crunch and heavy breathing. The lightning rod came back into view of the flashlights, and I saw bright orange eyes above it.
With a shout, the rod came barreling for my face, and I clenched my eyes shut, flinching.
It never connected, though. I opened my eyes and saw something incredible. I was engulfed in a blazing ring of fire, which swirled and spun about like a ballerina. It looked just like what I saw in my hands earlier, only it was unbridled and free. It quickly died down, and I found myself in a slightly brighter room, lit by the night outside. I spun around, confused. Behind me was a hole in the ground, and in front of me was a glass wall that showed the city just outside.
I didn’t have time to sit and think; I had to get out. Out of this room. Out of this city. Out of the Order’s grasp. I ran to the door, threw it wide, and stepped out into the street. Skyscrapers of glass and whitewashed metal greeted me, and all manner of bright neon lights and billboards shone nearly as bright as the sun. Throngs of people littered the streets, all about their business.
I looked at my hands again; the fire was gone. I blended in perfectly. I could ease my way through the crowd and make my way to the edge of the city. Then out for good. One step at a time.
A loud siren blasted through the air, and every person stopped immediately and turned to one of the many screens all around the city. Each and every one showed the same thing: a mug shot. Mine. Beneath the picture were the words “Traitor to the Order. Considered highly dangerous. Contact the authorities with any information.” And then there was my name.